Swordfish Bi-Plane Only Entered Operational Service 1936


Escort carrier HMS Activity in Firth of Forth 1942

Like a number of escort carriers, HMS Activity was a merchant ship converted to an aircraft carrier. After the war, the landing deck was removed and the ship returned to merchant service. Often these small carriers only carried a handful of Swordfish but aircraft patrolling over convoys proved critical in the Battle of the North Atlantic and the overall war against U-Boats. While we think of U-boats being sunk by convoy escort ships, almost half of U-Boats sunk in the European Theatre were sunk by U-boats. (Doenitz deployed a handful of U-Boats in and around Singapore).

While we think of U-boats being sunk by convoy escort ships, almost half of U-Boats sunk in the European Theatre were sunk by U-boats. (Doenitz deployed a handful of U-Boats in and around Singapore).


THE BATTLE OF ATLANTIC, 1939-1945 (A 19718) A batman uses signal bats to guide the landing of a rocket-firing Fairey Swordfish of No. 816 Squadron Fleet Air Arm on board HMS TRACKER in the North Atlantic, September-October 1943. Note the rocket projectiles under the wings. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186701


Swordfish were usually embarked aboard escort carriers on North Atlantic convoy duty. They made excellent U-Boat hunters once the proper type of radar was installed.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 24986) Three rocket projectile Fairey Swordfish during a training flight from St Merryn Royal Naval Air Station This operational squadron was ommanded by Lieutenant Commander P Snow RN. Note the invasion stripes carried for the Normandy landings on the wings and fuselage of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016147


While originally built as a prototype for the Greek Navy, they turned it down in the mid-30s and Fairey Brothers Aircraft offered it the Royal Navy primarily for use on aircraft carriers. After design changes the plane went into production as the famous Royal Navy Swordfish which served multiple roles: patrol and reconnaissance, torpedo bomber, tactical bomber to support infantry and U-boat hunter/killer. The plane was oddly effective in all of these roles and was used operationally for the entire war.

RAFCC1939-1945 IWMCL2277

Armourers unload 250-lb GP bombs in front of a line of Fairey Swordfish Mark IIIs of No. 119 Squadron RAF, undergoing maintenance at B83/Knokke le Zoute, Belgium. The Squadron flew anti-shipping patrols, principally against German midget submarines, in the North Sea, and off the Dutch coast.

(Photo CL 2277 IWM. Taken by Flt. Lt. B.J. Daventry, Royal Air Force Official Photographer. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).


IWM 4090 Swordfish_on_HMS_Victorious_before_strike_on_Bismarck

Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck. Date 24 May 1941. This is photograph A 4090 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums now in the public domain.




October 1941. After a reconnaissance flight, a Fairey Swordfish sea plane returns to HMS Malaya and is hoisted in board. The Swordfish was used as a “shot-spotter” by many RN battleships and cruisers. By reporting the fall of shot to the ship via radio, the theory was the gunnery officers could adjust their aim for better accuracy. This never seemed to work very well.

HMS Malaya was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship launched in March 1915. She was named in honour of the Federated Malay States in British Malaya, whose government paid for her construction.

Unfortunately, when World War Two came, HMS Malaya had not been modernized. While rated at 25 knots the ship’s worn out engines could barely make 20 knots. The ship’s deck armour was too thin to withstand dive bomber attacks. Amenities for officers and crew were primitive. The ship’s ventilation system was particularly bad. Serving in her in tropical climates was hell.

However, her eight fifteen inch guns still packed a punch. Like many older battleships, she escorted troop convoys since all troop convoys were required to have at least one battleship in their escort.



RAF and Royal Navy ground crew refuel a Fairey Swordfish Mark III of No. 119 Squadron RAF Detachment at B65/Maldeghem, Belgium. In emergencies, Swordfish were posted ashore and used to support infantry attacks by British and Commonwealth troops. 

(photo CL 1638 from the IWM. Clark N S (Flt Lt), Royal Air Force official photographer).




In addition to use by the Royal Navy, the Swordfish was used extensively by RAF Coastal Command to hunt submarines which the plane did quite effectively once equipped with proper radar and bombs. By mid-1944, the aircraft was also equipped with air-to-surface missiles to use against U-boats.

Series of photos taken from a Swordfish during landing on escort carrier HMS Activity.

(All photos and captions courtesy of Imperial War Museum and all photos in the public domain).

IWM Swordfish photo 4090

circles HMS Activity in the distance

Swordfish approachng HMS Activity IWM

A Fairey Swordfish circles the escort carrier it is about to land on and comes astern of HMS Activity. Note the nose of the Fairey Swordfish is held well up.

swordfish about to land HMS Activity

20 yards to go, the Fairey Swordfish is hanging on its propeller and moving at not more than 60 knots. Note the “Bats” Officer on the carrier’s deck. He makes the signal to the pilot “Carry on as you are”.

Swordfish cut engine HMS Activity

The Batsman gives the signal to the pilot to cut his engine. It is essential that the order is immediately carried out, for the Fairey Swordfish is now only a foot or two off the deck and the hook is about to catch on one of the arrester wires.

Fairey Swordfish at Barrier IWM

A second photographer got a picture of the Fairey Swordfish the moment she landed. Note that the crash-barrier is up in the foreground, in case the arrester hook on the aircraft fails to pick up one of the wires.

fairey swrodfish at barrier 2 IWM

Second photo from different angle. Picture of the Fairey Swordfish the moment she landed. 

Fairey Swordfish landing 6

The Fairey Swordfish has crossed the round-down, and the arrester wires are seen just ahead. The control officer has just given the signal for the pilot to come lower. The men in the side nets are the handling crew who will seize the Fairey Swordfish the moment she lands.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/